Shenmue 3 Review
It’s been nearly 20 years since Shenmue 2 launched in 2001 with an epic story that ended on a massive cliffhanger. But sadly, due to poor sales and the demise of the SEGA Dreamcast, the narrative-heavy open world series was discontinued and fans were left with an unfinished story that seemed as if it would stay that way forever.
But then, during E3 2015, Shenmue 3 was surprisingly announced with a Kickstarter campaign and a very rough-looking reveal trailer. The game’s development was also pretty rough as it was delayed multiple times and when gameplay was finally revealed, it looked like Shenmue 3 had not even bothered to modernize the series. The next Shenmue game was coming out on modern platforms but seemed like it was stuck in the past.
Against all odds, the game finally came out earlier this month. After a 20-plus hour playthrough, I saw Shenmue 3’s ending, its credits, and series creator Yu Suzuki’s heartwarming message about wanting to make a Shenmue 4. Despite enjoying the game’s action-packed finale, I was left with mixed feelings about my whole Shenmue 3 experience. The biggest question on my mind after beating Shenmue 3 was this: was it worth the wait? Well, no, it really wasn’t.
Shenmue 3 starts right where Shenmue 2 left off with series protagonist Ryo Hazuki and his newfound friend, Shenhua, journeying through mainland 1980s China to find her missing father, Yuan. But Ryo isn’t just concerned with finding Yuan, he’s also on a revenge mission to kill a Chinese crime lord named Lan Di, a skilled fighter who murdered Ryo’s father in the beginning of the first game.
Lan Di also stole a magic stone mirror, the Dragon Mirror, from Ryo’s home and he’s possibly planning on destroying the world if he gets another magic mirror, the Phoenix Mirror (which Ryo luckily possesses). However, there’s so much more that’s happened in the first two games that I can’t spend the entire review summarizing all of it. Luckily, Shenmue 3 comes with a handy recap video that succinctly explains everything that happened in the previous games.
Unfortunately, this long-awaited third game barely does anything to build on the plot of those two games. Most of Shenmue 3’s story is meaningless filler that involves a (mostly) boring cast of characters and convoluted goose chases where Ryo goes after “thugs”.
Without heading into spoiler territory, I’ll say that very little of what happens in Shenmue 3 actually matters to the overall plot of the series. After all this anticipation, I couldn’t help but feel in the end that Suzuki fumbled the miraculous opportunity of making another game in a series that’s been dead for almost 20 years. For example, at the heart of Shenmue 3’s story is the relationship between Ryo and Shenhua but this relationship is easily the most boring part of the game. The pair began the game as awkward friends and by the end of the story this relationship didn’t actually evolve or go anywhere interesting.
Ryo, voiced by a returning Corey Marshall, is as dull and monotone as he was in previous games and only occasionally shows actual personality. Meanwhile, Shenhua, voiced by Brianna Knickerbocker, is a passive, unmemorable character who spends most of the game just sitting around and having Ryo do everything despite her missing father’s life possibly being in danger. When the two are together, their dialogue often lacks any chemistry or spark due to how perfunctory and bland their conversations are. It’s honestly bizarre how poorly the game handles their relationship. Since Shenhua is a character with very little agency, her relationship with Ryo ends up feeling shallow and Ryo barely has to interact with her throughout the game.
For instance, there’s a late-game plot beat where Ryo needs to raise an exorbitant amount of money in order to buy an old martial arts book. Eventually, Shenhua tells Ryo that she plans on working to help him raise the money he needs but he then tells her that she doesn’t have to work. Instead, he insists that she’s been doing enough already despite all evidence to the contrary.
Other characters are similarly uninteresting aside from the mischievous thief Ren, voiced by Greg Chun. Whenever Ren and Ryo are paired together, Shenmue 3’s dialogue actually becomes unironically entertaining since these two polar opposite personalities bounce off each other so well.
Shenmue 3 Retains That Classic Shenmue Feel
Even though much of Shenmue 3’s story and characters are disappointing, it at least still plays like a classic Shenmue game. Shenmue 3 features two open world areas for Ryo to explore with the beginning of the game taking place in Shenhua’s rural hometown, Bailu Village, and the second act taking place in a sizeable, dense city called Niaowu.
There’s a variety of engaging side activities that range from playing arcade games to betting on turtle races. There’s also several goofy, Yakuza-esque side quests that Ryo can take on, such as playing matchmaker between a nervous guy and a very enthusiastic martial artist.
Notably, unlike previous Shenmue games, there’s a certain amount of moment-to-moment upkeep involved in Shenmue 3’s gameplay since Ryo’s life and stamina meters are combined. Ryo must eat or drink to fight enemies or run for more than 10 seconds. Though this system furthers the series’ dedication towards realism, I hated it because combining health and stamina makes traversal tedious and annoying. Ryo’s default walking speed is brisk but there were times when I just wanted to run to my destination instead of being forced to walk through the same environments yet again.
Ryo also has Attack and Endurance stats that you’ll need to upgrade throughout the game. The Endurance stat can be leveled up with endurance exercises but the Attack stat won’t improve unless Ryo practices fighting moves in sparring sessions. At first, Ryo has a few default moves that he can practice to raise his Attack power but you’ll eventually run out of moves to practice and will need to acquire skill books. These can be bought from pawn shops or exchanged for sets of specific items such as capsule toys and herbs.
Tedious & Necessary Upgrades
On paper, this upgrade system seems like a great way to immerse players into the role of a disciplined martial artist like Ryo but in practice it acted as a roadblock multiple times since you’re basically forced to grind until Ryo’s stats are good enough to beat up enemies and progress the plot. The worst parts of the game were whenever I had to look for herbs to exchange for skill books in order to upgrade Ryo’s attack power or participate in fighting tournaments in the hope of being awarded a skill book.
The actual combat didn’t fare much better either. Outside of a few impressive cut scenes and QTEs Shenmue 3’s fighting looks and feels clunky. While the new lock-on targeting system makes fighting multiple opponents a welcome improvement over the previous games it’s still unwieldy making it somewhat frustrating. Additionally Ryo has a wide variety of special fighting moves that are thankfully used with the R2 button. This makes the simplistic, mediocre combat go by more quickly.
While there’s plenty of combat, Shenmue 3 also has investigation gameplay that’s similar to previous games. For most of the main story Ryo will go around and ask people questions about where certain “thugs” are or ask for directions to a store. Though this sounds like it would be dull to play, I actually enjoyed this because it was basically a puzzle to deduce which people would logically know the answers you’re seeking. For example, when I found an old photograph in Bailu Village, I figured that I should ask one of the older villagers about it since they probably knew who was in the photo. When I asked an old lady about the photo, she joked about Ryo only asking her because she was old before telling him who those people were. It was a neat moment!
Speaking of Bailu, both the village and the city of Niaowu look fantastic. Bailu’s lush green fields, beautiful blue rivers, and simple, homely houses create a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere. Niaowu has similarly impressive visuals with its highly detailed building interiors, slick city streets, and colorful pagodas. Despite clearly being a budget game, Shenmue 3’s environments are truly stunning at times. That said, these environments lack immersion since so many of the NPCs don’t really do much of anything. The game’s environments look like they should be full of life but actually playing in them doesn’t invoke the sense that this is a living, breathing world.
With all this said, Shenmue 3 is a game that I wished I loved or at least liked. It’s a game that I could only enjoy in spurts since so much of my experience was marred by mediocre, repetitive gameplay, terrible characters, and a disappointing, meandering plot. I didn’t head into Shenmue 3 with high expectations due to its budget but the game still failed to meet even those lowered expectations.
*** PS4 code provided by the publisher ***
- Retains that classic Shenmue feel
- Beautiful environments
- Enjoyable side activities
- Disappointing story
- Boring, terrible characters
- Repetitive, grindy gameplay segments